Before indulging in a thought experiment as this to determine where we, as humans, as Americans, went wrong, one should first present compelling evidence that we have indeed gone culturally awry.
The first point I think is worth making is pointing to the 2020 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, their reports known better as the “Doomsday Clock”. First instituted in 1945, this periodical details the progress of the human race towards our own destruction. While purely speculative, it serves as an interesting examination of the general direction our species is headed, our own progression carrying the weight of new means of self destruction.
The bulletin was first created in 1945, in response to the first atomic bomb. Since then, it has largely dealt with just two dangers — atomic warfare, and more recently, the threat of global warming. From time to time, and at least once a year, the group releases their estimate of how close we are to actions that would result in the of humanity, represented by the clock hitting midnight.
“With humanity likely living its final hours, and so many of us living without happiness — especially in nations contributing most to the gravest of factors — it seems fair to make the solemn admission that we have gone wrong.”
On January 23rd, the Atomic Scientists released their 2020 bulletin — we are 100 seconds to the midnight. You can read the full brief here. In short, the continued inaction of world governments to even slow the emissions contributing to the unprecedented warming of our planet, paired with world leaders pulling out of nuclear disarmament agreements, have pushed the clock ever closer to midnight.
Most worrisome is the fact that the clock now stands closer to midnight than it ever has. That includes, as a somber reminder, the height of the Cold War, which had numerous incidents that, though accidentally, took us to the very brink of our existence.
It is certainly a valid warning sign that, despite thousands of years of human progression, we now find ourselves closer to extinction than any other time in our history.
One could make a case that these technologies which have pushed us to this brink are justified, if they could show that our overall happiness was also bursting at the seams. While we certainly should still be mindful of that which presses us against our own final hours, if it had created a reality that reached towards a utopian dream, it would be worth measuring the risks.
Unfortunately, that is not at all the case, especially in the nation states that are pushing us towards our mutual destruction. Numerous studies show that, in America for example, despite unparalleled wealth and nearly unmatched standard of living, Americans are no more happier than our ancestors, nor our global counterparts. In fact, their happiness level dwindles well below nations that are far less rich (Sweden, The Netherlands), and nations that have far lower standards of living, like India.
With humanity likely living its final hours, and so many of us living without happiness — especially in nations contributing most to the gravest of factors— it seems fair to make the solemn admission that we have gone wrong.
Where did it happen?
The admission that we have failed ourselves should mandate an examination of when and how we have put ourselves into sharp decline, and what we can do to correct it.
Surely humanity has done far more succeeding than failing — we have only put ourselves in such a precarious position very, very recently. With over 200,000 years of history, when did the most successful specie in the known universe enter this period of decline?
There have been a few very significant advancements in human history which have undoubtedly ushered in eras of rapid improvement. The first was that of agriculture — for the first time, humans could survive outside of the ‘hunter gatherer’ nomad lifestyle, creating settlements where crops could be seeded and grown, beginning around 10,000 BCE. That was relatively limiting, leaving small communities prone to weather and climate, forced to move on from their settlements in times of drought. Simple irrigation was discovered about four thousand years later, in 6000 BCE, and for the first time, permanent settlements were established, including in Ancient Egypt, lasting through to present day.
Still all positive.
With irrigation, and later, the domestication of animals and livestock, humanity discovered something they had not yet had in their struggle to survive — an abundance of free time. This age brought the rise of pottery, art, and weaponry. Sprawling city states clashed for the first time; more than just the conflict of passing tribes, the idea of war began to take shape.
Still, with the effects of conflict generally limited to the participating parties, it seems that the weight of human innovation and culture moved to benefit most everyone’s life.
So was the case, as we speed though history thousands of years to the industrial revolution, beginning in the late 1700s. While wars grew in size and the toll they took, most all human innovation still served to lift up the masses.
Many claim that the industrial revolution put that movement into high gear — in just a few centuries, we found ourselves with technologies and comforts that one couldn’t even begin to imagine a few short centuries prior. And while I agree that the industrial revolution has contributed to humanity’s most impressive hours, I contend that it is at this moment we also created the two most toxic movements in human history: the means for self annihilation, and the birth of rugged individualism.
While certainly vital and worthy of the most serious consideration, this point is both straight forward and uncontroversial. Even with the most powerful weapons one can dream up with gunpowder alone, it seems nearly impossible that such weapons could result in the extinction of our specie. The advent of atomic weapons in 1945 meant, for the first time, we could grow the capability to wipe our own specie clear off the map. And so we have; it’s predicted that there are currently enough active nuclear weapons (about 15,000) to destroy the human race a hundred times over.
Regrettably more controversial, the industrial revolution has single handedly pushed us into the global warming crisis. While it has been what’s created the highest standard of living we’ve ever known, there is obviously no technology worth the demise of our entire specie.
We’ve taken very large steps in the wrong direction, forgetting that self preservation should trump any other motives we have.
The Birth of Individualism
For the better part of 200,000 years, one aspect of reality remained the same: we operated as pack animals. And as evolution designed — our lanky frames position the most advanced brain in nature a few feet off the ground, our fragile flesh wraps providing little in the way of defense or natural weaponry to survive the harsh realities of nature. Surviving alone has been, more or less, entirely impossible for nearly all of human existence. Should one dare to try, it takes little more than an ill timed nap to find ourselves at the mercy of a predator far stronger than us.
Even with early — and even most modern — civilizations, our contributions were not just for our own survival, but for that of the communities we existed in. Settlement brought the ability to specialize — some of us got very good at farming crops, others at raising livestock, providing medical care, and so on.
Now, we all carry out our day to day lives for our own existence. Government, to many, is seen not as the great provider of a high floor for a standard of living, but as a burdensome, corrupt entity that stands between us and our individual freedoms. There are plenty of good points to be made for that case.
We find ourselves in a society that not only is not simply a group of settlers providing their talents for the advancement and benefit of all others, but one that seems to live and die by the laws of personal ownership and personal gain, the needs and plight of culture at large not relevant to our motives.
I’m sure some here will recoil, hearing whispers of communist theory being pushed, but I challenge that we need not go to that extreme in our critique of our present day society. In fact, I believe that a pure and well functioning capitalist society can well encourage our best values, lifting the standard of living for those who can innovate and produce new tools and ideas that benefit large groups of people. That’s where capitalism strives, and I take nothing away from that positive mechanism.
But that’s rarely what we see, presently. Generational wealth is passed on and grown from one decade to the next. Millions struggle, by themselves, to provide even a humble existence in both capitalist cultures like the United States, and more socialistic societies such as China and Russia.
We’ve lost the power and majesty of mutual cooperation of our specie. We’ve been pitted against each other in a quest to accumulate as many resources as we can; most telling, it is the richest nations that find themselves the most unsatisfied. The more we have, the more our greed and selfishness demands from our situation. Admittedly, I too am sucked into this psyche. With millions starving, and beyond an awakening that’s lead me to admit my pursuits of wealth are a large root of my depression, I still want a Ferrari. And a yacht. (But I have committed to providing immense value to my community before I ever allow myself such frivolous luxuries, if I ever get the chance.)
And with that, we’ve lost ourselves as a specie. No longer are we cooperating to advance ourselves, but competing to advance selfish pursuits. There are surely times when those selfish pursuits act to promote that which benefits us all: the rigors of the education required to be a doctor, to realize the high wages that provides, results in a sustainable number of people capable of saving lives.
But all too often, left to consider only one’s individual situation, we toil away at endeavors that provide no positive contributions, such is the case with the financialization of markets. Worse still, many of these individual endeavors push us ever closer to midnight — the endless thirst for power, for wealth, creating new machines that poison our fragile planet and threaten a quick extinction in just a few hundred detonations.
And for millions of us, we work to complete tasks for corporations whose sole purpose is to generate shareholder wealth. That has created a society of wage laborers, modern day serfs, left without purpose, without time or the resources to enjoy their own existence. We work to work; there’s good reason why even early Republicans likened wage labor to a form of slavery.
Individuality is what makes human existence beautiful and unique. Each of our minds, our consciousnesses, on their own journey through space and time. We should treasure that, and we should encourage and love what differences we have.
But we should flatly reject individualism, the idea that we are best served by first attending to our own needs. Should we continue on that path, there will be no individuals left to quest for anything.
We should dig down, deep within ourselves, and demand an awakening that we will need to survive just the next century.
Should we not be able or willing to progress as fast as we’ve pushed our capabilities, it seems likely that humanity’s true peak came just before the industrial revolution. It’s of little surprise to me, acknowledging the number of native cultures that have endured a primitive way of life that somehow carries more happiness and meaning that we find as captives in our own concrete jungles.
We are, have always been, and will always be, pack animals. Mammals that have realized the most incredible present moment through working together, each of us but cells in the sprawling organism that is all of humanity. The black, cancerous cells of rugged individualism must be outnumbered, for their spread represents our demise.
And that demise is imminent. We have just 100 seconds to come to our senses.